John Hersey’s long form essay first appeared in a 1946 edition of The New Yorker, one year after the atomic bomb was dropped; it was the first time in the magazine’s history an edition had been dedicated exclusively to a single article. Published almost in secret – unannounced, unadvertised, with most of the magazine staffers excluded from the secretive editorial process, distributed to its readers on a wave of confidence and trepidation – it was a revelation. It presented to the country that had manufactured and delivered the bomb – and to the world at large – the other side of the story at the Pacific front of the second world war. It sold out. It was lauded. It was read out on public radio. Hersey’s article has since been heralded as a key early example of the move to New Journalism (the use of fictional storytelling techniques in nonfiction writing). Within 12 months it had been released as a book and it has remained in print ever since.
It was a publishing sensation. About which much more can be freely read online. Praise, potted history, hyperbole and perceived (and debated) significance to modern journalism styles aside, there is a reason why this book has remained in print and continues to be both read and relevant more than 70 years later: it is remarkable.
Hersey offers neither explanation nor justification. Through the stories of six survivors of nuclear holocaust he simply reports – what they experienced, how they survived, how they reacted, what they saw and felt and endured, and then in a follow-up written 40 years later, how they lived (or died) with the effects. This is, in short, the story of a city struck by the atomic bomb.
It is reportage at its purest – unembellished, uninflected, unaffected and unemotional. A bomb that killed 100’000 and was instrumental in bringing to an end ruinous total war, that gave rise to a new age and threatened unimaginable destruction, requires no further sensation. The accounts of the survivors render the indiscriminate slaughter intimate, humanising the apparently inhuman. Its matter-of-factness – the dry recall of precise times and movements, the flash, the fires, the confusion and an immediate aftermath of chaos – makes for compelling but uncomfortable reading, but it could not be delivered in any other way. The experiences of Hiroshima’s citizens speak all too clearly for themselves.
A remarkable and horrific moment in history is forever captured in words on a page. It is not a book that can be liked in a conventional sense but there can be no choice but to acknowledge Hiroshima for what it is – an extraordinarily rare piece of work that does justice to its extraordinary subject.